Minority veterans groups ask changes in hiring practices by police and fire

Organizations representing Boston’s minority firefighters and police officers are calling for an investigation into hiring practices they say make it prohibitively difficult for veterans of color to join the city forces.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice filed an investigation request last Thursday with the state Civil Service Commission, asking the commission to look into how the Massachusetts Human Resources Division and the Boston fire and police departments hire and rank potential recruits.

The request was filed on behalf of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, the Boston Society of Vulcans – a black and Latino firefighters group – and 10 individuals.

Resident preference in civil service exams prioritizes applicants who have lived in the city for a year, moving them up the list to be considered for the highly sought after police and fire jobs. But some veterans can skirt those residency requirements by indicating they plan to move to Boston when discharged, and do so within 90 days of leaving active duty. Which means a Massachusetts veteran who has never lived in Boston could get the same boost as a lifelong Boston resident. Those who have been on active duty already have an advantage over civilian applicants.

Boston is more diverse than other Massachusetts cities, said Sophia Hall, a lawyer with the committee, having been a majority-minority city since 2011. So, the Lawyer’s Committee said, practices that allow non-Bostonians to skirt residency requirements “disproportionately harm Boston’s minority veterans.”

Hall said they decided to seek the investigation to determine whether this civil service residency exception is illegal. Anecdotally, she said, the committee is barraged with stories of veterans of color continually hitting barriers to joining the police or fire departments.

“I am a black Marine Corps veteran and a Boston resident for nearly all of my life. I took the civil service examination three times to become a Boston firefighter, but never got hired,” said Duaine Doyle, a Vulcans member and one of the individuals requesting the investigation, in a statement. “When Residence Preference is given to people who are not actual Boston residents like me, that harms the true Boston veterans and makes the city’s public safety agencies less diverse.”

The police force is about one-third people of color, and the fire department about 20 percent. Civil rights groups predicted, then saw a backslide recently in hiring minorities into the fire department, according a finding in an NAACP report last year that between 85 and 90 percent of all fire department hires during Mayor Martin Walsh’s tenure have been white.

Nicole Caravella, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said on Tuesday that the city will review the request for the information. Representatives from Boston police, fire, and the Massachusetts Human Resources Division did not immediately return request for comment by the Reporter.

A Boston Fire Department spokesman told WBUR that hiring is done according to state rules, but declined to comment further.

“The reality is we can’t trust the City of Boston to diversify City of Boston agencies on their own,” Hall said. “We’ve taken up the charge to offer them realistic and an actual solutions that could impact diversity in a real way.”

A firefighter cadet program, used to better explain to potential recruits the limitations of certain types of military service and longer residency requirements, could all help boost the number of minority applicants who could benefit from the veteran preference, civil rights groups say.

“When we offer solutions through letter, interactions, and meetings that are not implemented, we are left with nothing but to file lawsuits, or, in this case, with residency requirements, we are left with our last solution prior to litigation, which is to ask Civil Service to enact their jurisdiction,” Hall said.
A show cause hearing before the Civil Service Commission is scheduled for March 13 at 1 p.m.

Residency requirements are one of several practices employed by the police and fire forces that the Lawyer’s Committee says discourage diverse forces. “I think the problem is that, and we see this in implicit bias research, it’s not always clear whether the decision maker may have a discriminatory intent,” Hall said. “I think we’ve been in a city long enough that has worked in a particular way that no one has questioned and no one has thought to change.”